Observe: Psalm 119 is a long meditation on God’s Law. It uses eight different synonyms for “Law,” meaning Torah or instruction. Every verse (all 176 of them) praises God’s Torah in some way. The psalm is constructed to follow the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so it is about God’s law from “A to Z.” The psalm is addressed to God throughout, creating a bond between psalmist and the Lord.
Although the psalm is about God’s Law, the Torah, it contains no reference to Moses, or the minutiae of temple ritual, or the Temple as God’s main domain on earth. Rather, Psalm 119 is from a period in Israel’s life when God is often found in reading and obeying Scripture. Israel is becoming the “people of the book,” in scattered synagogues around the ancient world. An ordered religious life centers on knowing and obeying the Scriptures.
So, this psalm’s praise is not for the glories of the temple and Mt. Zion, or even the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Rather thanks and praise are for the good life that comes from righteous obedience in everyday life. Here, priests and prophets and kings are not at the center of Israel’s life, but the reading and doing of God’s word in Scripture.
The word “good” is repeated often in this psalm: God is good, his law is good. Verse 68 says to God, “You are good and do good, teach me your statutes.”
The word “heart” occurs 15 times in Ps 119. The Psalmist “feels” rather than merely thinks about God’s commands and statutes and testimonies and precepts.
The three stanzas in verses 49-72 focus on how remembering God’s laws give comfort in the midst of troubles. Verse 50 is typical: This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise (i.e. law) gives me life.”
Interpret: Psalm 119:49-72 contains not just praise for God and his Law, but also thanks for how the Law protects the righteous from dangers and afflictions, or guides them through trouble. Thinking about God’s Law gives comfort and order and direction and even joy, especially in distress and setbacks, as in verses 61-62.
The Psalmist is blessed by knowing and obeying Torah. There is an intimacy in verses like 57: “The Lord is my portion, I promise to keep your words.” The focus is not on the self, but on God.
The psalmist sees God’s Law at work everywhere: in affliction, when being insulted, wherever one is staying, midnight and noontime, in the whole earth, in being humbled or humiliated; really, anytime and anywhere. This is about the God who is encountered and present everywhere. How important was this to Jews living far from Israel and the Temple?
Application: Are we people of the book? Do we delight in our good and righteous God and his word in Scripture each and every day?
In the Book of Common Prayer, page 78, as the Prayer of consecration includes this: “We should all times and in all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, O Lord, Holy Father, Almighty, Everlasting God, Creator and Preserver of all things.” All times and places: this echoes Psalm 119. Similarly, in Ephesians 5:20, we are asked to “give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In reading Psalm 119, what would happen if we took the word “law,” and all of its synonyms (statutes, rules, etc.), and replaced it with the word gospel? Would that drive the lesson home? Would we live by God’s word/gospel “at all times and in all places”?
If we are in distress, has reading the Bible helped? Has Bible reading brought a sense of God’s goodness back to us? Do we actually enjoy and even love God’s word? And, finally, have we found the holy order God’s word gives to our lives? Reading the very well ordered and long Psalm 119 suggests that we can have holy order in our long lives as well.
Prayer: “O Lord, you have given us your word for a light to shine upon our path. Grant us so to meditate on that word, and to follow its teaching, that we may find in it the light that shines more and more until the perfect day, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Common Worship, Daily Prayer, Church of England, p.404 )
Song: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet” (Twila Paris)
In 2023, each week's blog is a follow-up reflection written by the preceding Sunday’s preacher to dig deeper into the sermon topic and explore engaging discussion questions.